Review: Pioneer Theatre’s ‘Les Misérables’ adroitly balances spectacle and intimacy
It is stating the obvious to say that “Les Misérables“ has become one of Utah’s favorite musicals. The opening of Pioneer Theatre Company’s eloquent and emotionally powerful production offers another opportunity to discover why.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is the richness of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s multilayered musical score and its uncanny ability to capture both the complexity and simplicity of Victor Hugo’s sprawling portrait of France at a tumultuous turning point in its history. “Les Misérables” is a story of a society desperate for renewal and change, but it is also a story of human beings looking for love, struggling for acceptance, coping with longing and loss, and making the choices that define them as individuals.
As Enjolras sings in “Red and Black,” “It is time for us all to decide who we are.” As Charles Morey points out in his director’s notes, these characters are on a journey, and we can all relate to the stops they make along the way.
When the bishop refuses to condemn Jean Valjean, his simple act of compassion sets Valjean on a path toward redemption and an archetypal conflict with Javert, who is locked into the philosophy that “a man like you can never change.”
“Les Misérables” ultimately celebrates the possibility of change, not so much through the cataclysmic events that the students imagine but through simple, grace-full moments of kindness. This is a world Javert cannot understand, and its vision destroys him.
“Les Misérables” thrives on the tension between opposites: mercy and justice, compassion and duty, trust and betrayal, love and loss, dreams and reality, the haves and the have nots, the living and the dead. Many of the songs employ counterpoint to emblem those dualities, and Morey emphasizes that in the indelible stage pictures he creates, especially in the final moments of both acts: Valjean and Javert on opposing balconies in “One Day More,” and Valjean surrounded by the living/dead couples of Cozette/Fantine and Marius/Eponine at the end.
Joe Cassidy creates a charismatic and empathetic Jean Valjean, shifting smoothly from strong confrontations with Javert to tender moments with Fantine, Cozette and Marius in “Bring Him Home.” Josh Davis is a stern, self-righteous Javert with a powerful voice, but his stiff portrayal turns Javert into a diabolical force of nature, a one-dimensional villain.
Kelly McCormick’s Fantine is a study in dedication and desperation, determined to save her child at any cost and untainted by the corruption around her. As the Thénardiers, Christianne Tisdale and Dale Hensley are deliciously lascivious, reveling in their cleverness in victimizing others. Manna Nichols’ sweet, resourceful Eponine is a poignant mix of loyalty and longing. Perry Sherman and Melissa Mitchell inject energy and depth that help humanize the rather flat characters of Marius and Cozette. And Kevin Vortmann’s Enjolras is fiery and impassioned.
George Maxwell’s cavernous, yet claustrophobic, brick courtyard set is softened by a dark drape that creates a more intimate space, and Morey positions characters downstage at meaningful moments and isolates them in Karl Haas’ moody, golden lighting. K.L. Alberts’ colorful period costumes range from dignified to gaudy, sophisticated to simple, to depict the many levels of French society. Darren Cohen’s musical direction is impeccable; you can distinguish every word.
“Les Misérables” seems to possess unending new angles to explore. Its versatility and soaring musical score promise a multitude of future productions.